Whether it was by choice or necessity, artists have embraced the use of recovered materials since the beginning of the modern era, in particular materials coming from the world of packaging and transport.
The 19th century saw the emergence of oil painting done on cardboard, owing to the material being a cheaper option than canvas, and thus enabling artists to make quick impromptu sketches. In the 20th century the idea of reusing and salvaging different materials came to the forefront and turned into a catalyst for inspiration. This can be seen in Picasso’s work where, starting in 1912, the artist abandoned traditional sculpture and started his Guitares series, works consisting of innovative constructions made with “low-quality” materials: wood, cardboard, twine, etc. Henri Laurens and Picabia then followed his lead, creating their own sculptures in the same spirit.
Later, Andy Warhol stretched the “ready made” concept of Marcel Duchamp further in the 1960’s with his Brillo Box soapboxes and other transport containers and packaging found in the form of Campbell’s Soup cans and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes, which he raised to the level of a work of art. The use of packaging was then viewed as an artistic practice in its own right, and Warhol invited the observer to change his point of view of these cardboard boxes that were only intended to be used in transport and then thrown away. This shift in perception was such that it brought low art to the level of high art, changing commercially oriented applied art into ne art, making things thought of as utilitarian into creative endeavours through the emergence of pop art. Made between 1974 and 1987, Warhol’s Time Capsules series went even further with a surprising sequence of 612 cardboard moving boxes lled with various personal souvenirs belonging to the artist, methodically organised by theme before being closed and sent to a warehouse. In France, the Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists) also became interested in cardboard boxes and other discarded material, viewing them as a humble reminder of daily life, a subject that can be seen in Arman’s 1961 piece Poubelle des Halles, which was an assemblage of newspaper, cardboard, plastic and various items placed in a wood and glass box. The artist César worked with crushed cardboard boxes in 1975 and crates in 1976, as well as all kinds of packaging material in an artistic process focused on radical, minimalist reduction and a return to the basics.
Starting in the 1980s a completely new approach came to the fore through the artist Christo: the art of packaging, both aesthetic and audacious, done by wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985, the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995, and creating “Wrapped Trees” in Basel, Switzerland, among others. Packaging then became an accepted artistic act that both concealed and transformed a heritage site. The container took precedence over the contents, and packaging attracted greater attention and became more important than what it contained. Traditionally the packaging’s purpose could be de ned through three concepts: protecting, transporting and presenting. An ambivalent notion, it presents the paradox of both concealing and emphasising the value of the contents. It highlights a moment of suspense before revealing what is concealed and rendering it visible, like a Pandora’s Box of unfathomable secrets.
With the Arte Povera movement beginning in the 60s and 70s, the appeal of cheap materials and discarded objects became widespread, entailing a veritable asceticism that asked of the artist to strip away completely the various means used in creating his art in order to open him up to a pure form of creativity, as can be seen in Michangelo Pistoletto’s 2011 piece Labyrinthe, which was produced with undulated cardboard. The group Supports/Surfaces, founded in 1969, was also interested in a wide variety of recovered materials, and Viallat even used cardboard boxes in some of his pieces.
Artists that one wouldn’t expect also had moments in their artistic lives when they became interested in packaging and the lowly material, cardboard. For example in the 1960s Louise Nevelson made sculptures and cut-out stencils made of cardboard, foreshadowing her compositions-sculptures done with wood and paint. There is also Bernar Venet who in 1963 made the Reliefs Cartons series, which are in stark opposition to his methodical steel sculptures. Ben also played with self-deprecation in 1966 by writing on a cardboard box, “This box contains my pretention which is more than enough...”.
More relevant than ever, cardboard, plastics and recovered materials as well as the packaging representations themselves continue to inspire and “wrap up” the artists of our times, who transform and give to these materials a new life, a new karma, so much so that they have become an essential part of contemporary creation, a fact that made visible by the RAJA Art collection.